As a general rule, you can tell you are no longer the pastor of some church members when certain events or attitudes take place. This is true even if these people continue to attend the church at which you are the pastor. They may even remain as members for a long time, but you are no longer their pastor.
To put it another way, people leave the congregation long before they leave the congregation. They opt out mentally, spiritually, and financially long before they opt out physically. People check out long before they check out.
So how can you tell people have stopped viewing you as their pastor? In no particular order, consider the following symptoms. These have been gleaned from talking with a variety of pastors over the past few decades. These have shown themselves to be some of the more common indicators.
- Replaced or misplaced authority–When they start quoting pastors/authors/books/websites/etc. as being more authoritative than what you are teaching. “But I read on the net the other day that Pastor So-and-so believes this passage actually teaches ….” Those who play their personal choice of authority against your Biblically legitimate teaching authority have already left the congregation, even if they still attend.
- Decreased giving–When their financial giving decreases (if it even started in the first place). People generally indicate their commitment to being involved in a congregation with activity in their bank account. This is not always true, but generally.
- Decreased attendance–When their attendance withdraws from what it once was. True, there may be legitimate reasons why the frequency of a person’s attendance drops. But again, a general rule of thumb is that when people begin to withdraw from the Biblical “one another” principles, they have already left the congregation in their thinking.
- Shifting mindset–When their vocabulary changes from “us/we/our” to “you/your/they.” For instance, what was once “our church” becomes “you guys.” What was once “we are” becomes “you are.” This is the flip side of when people finally identify with your church before officially become members. You hear their vocabulary church from “your church” to “our church” in their conversations.
- Secretive communication–When their conversations stop as you walk by. You may see them huddled in their clusters of people in animated conversation, but as you perambulate in their direction, awkward silence permeates the space. Their eyes are averted to other more interesting objects, such as a particular spot on the wall or carpet. Emails and phone calls to third parties not directly involved in the situation become more frequent.
- Increased isolation–When their seating choices for services or fellowship meals take a markedly different direction. People they once sat next to are now on the other side of the auditorium or the room where the meal is taking place. People who once sat up close to the teaching pulpit begin to sit as far away from the teacher as possible.
- Strange bedfellows–When people who once rarely interacted with each other as fellow members now because “best friends.” Temporary “birds of a feather” if you will.
- Overactive imagination–When you attempt to explain yourself as clearly as you can, they choose not to believe what you say because they “know” what you really meant. One pastor said he was even accused of altering a sermon recording to erase the “evidence” of an alleged comment. No matter what you may say, it will be rejected for their authoritative more imaginative option.
- Habitual criticism–When their criticism becomes a habit. While the Bible clearly commands us to be discerning, people who are about to leave often become overly critical of different aspects of church life and the church leadership. What was once tolerated in love, is now emphasized and condemned because “someone needs to address this.” The cry of “Injustice” has often been the public theme of revolutionaries. Minor issues become major rallying positions.
There are no doubt many other symptoms of “leaving before one leaves,” but these are some of which you need to be aware. True, these tend to take place over a period of time. They may appear in different sequences for different people. But most likely they will become evident. Too often, sadly, they become evident only in hindsight after the family leaves.
Pastor Dan Phillips has written a post that summarizes much of what I have tried to say and do over the years as I attempt to shepherd the flock of God He has entrusted to me. Well said, Pastor Phillips. We are tour-guides in a sense. And we cannot explain what we have not studied. Pity the flock with a shepherd who doesn’t care enough, or won’t take the time, to learn all he can so that he can better equip God’s flock.
Each month it is my privilege to meet with the deacons of our congregation. It has been a joy to pray, study, and discuss things together to the glory of God with Biblically qualified men. Surely the Scripture is true that says, “for those who have assisted well [diakoneo # 1247] acquire for themselves (2 things) a good standing (externally) and great confidence (internally) in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.” (1st Timothy 3:13) I thank God for these men.
We need more people like Bob. In chapter 5 of his book, I Am A Church Member, Thom Rainer shares a personal account from his life in his early twenties.
The more I got involved, the more I would see the imperfections of the church, the pastor, the staff, and other church members. Bob had seen the pattern repeatedly. Get excited about church. Get more involved. Discover the imperfections of the church. Get discouraged about the church. Leave the church. (emphasis added)
Bob took me under his wing. When I would begin to get angry, frustrated, or discouraged about something at the church, he would talk to me. He would explain that no church is perfect. No pastor is perfect. No church member is perfect. And he would gently remind me that I was not close to perfect either.
He told me that we were to find joy in serving the church and those in the church. We were not a part of the church to see what we could get out of it. We were a part of the church to serve and care for others. Our perspective should always be on giving, not receiving. And if someone did something that disappointed or frustrated us, that was God’s way of telling us to pray for that person. (56-57)
One of the many lessons I learned from Bob was to bring my family together to pray for my church. Following Bob’s leadership, I would learn to pray for the leadership of the church and a number of ways:
- For spiritual protection.
- For protection from moral failure.
- For the preaching of the Word.
- For their families.
- For encouragement.
- For physical strength.
- For courage.
- For discernment.
- For wisdom in their leadership.
Part of the opportunity in honor of being a church member is the teaching of our family to love the church. And that teaching often begins by praying together as a family for the church where God placed us. (59-60)
Rainer’s suggested pledge/grace-desire near the end of the chapter is this:
I will lead my family to be good members of this church as well. We will pray together for our church. We will worship together in our church. We will serve together in our church. We will ask (God) to help us fall deeper in love with this church because (Christ) gave His life for her. (64)
We need to pray for more people like Bob in the our congregations.
In chapter 4 of his book, I Am A Church Member, Thom Rainer addresses the topic of praying for one’s pastor. He opens the chapter with a lengthy true story of a day in the life of a pastor. I could personally relate to such a story. We as pastors seldom share such stories with others. Perhaps we should.
Rainer reminds his readers of several areas of life concerning which they should pray for their pastor.
- Pray regarding his teaching preparation and public speaking
- Pray regarding his family. “Few families face the kinds of pressures and expectations as the families of pastors.”
- Pray regarding his spiritual protection. Remember the Biblical qualifications for being a pastor. Remember the unique traps that are regularly laid for pastors.
- Pray regarding his physical and mental health. Remember his need for wisdom. Remember the pressures that he experiences through the normal routine of his ministry.
I would add that, as a general rule, the church member who consistently and genuinely prays to God concerning their pastor seldom talks negatively to other church members about their pastor. Pray for your pastor. And when you are done, pray for him again.
It has been my privilege to study and teach from the book of Ruth for the past few months. Here is a list of the resources I have found to be most helpful.
- Frederic Bush: Ruth/Esther (Vol. 9 Word Biblical Commentary; ISBN: 9780849902086)
- Robert B. Chisholm, Jr.: A Commentary on Judges and Ruth (Kregel; ISBN: 9780825425561)
- Robert B. Chisholm, Jr.: A Workbook for Intermediate Hebrew (Kregel; ISBN: 9780825423901)
- David A. Dorsey: The Literary Structure of the Old Testament (Baker Academic; ISBN: 9780801027932)
- Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum: Judges and Ruth (Ariel Ministries; ISBN: 9780976525233)
I make use of other resources, but I have found these to be the most helpful. I especially appreciate the two commentaries by Bush and Chisholm. Chisholm’s workbook has been a good refresher for my Hebrew.
A copy of a helpful book by Thom Rainer was recently gifted to me. I have used the title from chapter 3 of I Am A Church Member as the title for this post.
Rainer writes: Christians can sometimes act like those demanding children who want things their way. Temper tantrums in churches may not include church members lying on the floor kicking and screaming, but some come close. (Though I personally know of some such examples.)
But the strange thing about church membership is that you actually give up your preferences when you join. Don’t get me wrong; there may be much about your church that you like a lot. But you are there to meet the needs of others. You were there to serve others. You are there to give. You are there to sacrifice. Get the picture? (34)
We will never find joy in church membership when we are constantly seeking things our way. But paradoxically, we will find the greatest joy when we choose to be last. That’s what Jesus meant when He said the last will be first. True joy means giving up our rights and preferences and serving everyone else. And that’s what church membership means as well. (36)
While I am not a big fan of making pledges necessarily, Rainer includes a pledge at the end of each chapter. (I would suggest something more along the lines of “grace-desires.”) Be that as it may, Rainer reminds us to remind ourselves of the following:
I am a church member. I will not let my church be about my preferences and desires. That is self-serving. I am a member in this church to serve others and to serve Christ. My Savior went to a cross for me. I can deal with any inconveniences and matters that just aren’t my preference or style. (41)
Pastor Dan Phillips has benefited the public Bible reader with his post, The Public Reading of Scripture: Ten Pointed Pointers. Here are some ideas that I will be sharing with the readers in our congregation.
You will want to read this helpful post on responding to a specific type of criticism.
Some professing Christians have a distorted view of God. This distortion often goes one of two directions. The first distortion is that God wants me to be healthy and wealthy at all times. The second distortion is that God is often stingy in dealing with His children. Both are inaccurate views of God.
We see this “God is stingy” attitude illustrated in the life of Naomi in the book of Ruth. Consider the emphasis in Ruth 1:21 where she says: “full was I when I left here, but empty Yahweh has caused me to return.” By the way, have you ever considered how the loyally-merciful Ruth felt as she stood nearby listening to Naomi complain about her God-induced emptiness?
So, is God really reluctant to meet our needs? Does He simply give us enough to “get by”? Consider the use of the Greek term epichoregeo [Strong's # 2023]. There are fives uses in the New Testament. The first three refer to God Himself.
- Second Corinthians 9:10–God’s generosity in providing seed for the farmer, food to eat, and material means to give to others
- Galatians 3:5–God’s generosity in giving the Holy Spirit to genuine believers at the moment of salvation
- 2nd Peter 1:11–God’s generosity in providing genuine believers with an abundant entrance in the coming kingdom of Jesus Christ
The second two references are used to refer to God’s people.
- Colossians 2:19–we are to reflect God’s image by being generous in assisting the growth of other believers in the congregation
- Second Peter 1:5–we are to reflect God’s image by making every effort to be generous in doing what is needed for ourselves to grow spiritually in Christlikeness
Far from being stingy, God is generous. And we, as His children, are to reflect that image to the glory of His name and the good of His people.